It was “howling adventures among the Injuns” that Huckleberry Finn vowed to light out for when Aunt Sally threatened to adopt and civilize him, and it’s a bet he wasn’t thinking about the root-digging Indians of the Utah desert, or the sheep-herding Indians of the Southwest, or the rice-harvesting Indians of the Great Lakes, but about the gorgeous, horse-riding, buffalo-killing, war-whooping Indians in feathers of the Great Plains who lived as they liked and rode where they pleased. Finn was chafing for freedom in the 1840s, stuck in western Missouri on a hemp farm (“There’s liver places than a hemp farm,” writes Twain), at a time when the three men who became the great Sioux chiefs of the nineteenth century—Red Cloud in his twenties, Sitting Bull in his teens, and Crazy Horse not yet ten—had rarely if ever seen a white man, and could not imagine the restless ocean of white faces to the east already beginning to dream about bettering their condition across the wide Missouri.
What Finn knew about Indians came from his well-read friend Tom Sawyer, always eager to share his knowledge, and Mark Twain, summing it up in 1884, when the story of the Sioux was already pretty much over (save only for the episode known as Wounded Knee), has captured in a single remarkable passage not only the Indian of the American popular imagination in its purest form but a kind of subversive antihistory of what actually happened to the Indians who watched the pioneers bound for Oregon making their way west in the 1840s. Twain took pen in hand as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ending with Huck’s vow to light out, was on its way to the printer. Commencing a new novel (never completed, alas) with the plan for western adventures, Twain recorded at generous length Tom’s patient explanation of why Jim had nothing to fear from the wild Indians in the Territory:
Injuns ornery! [scoffed Tom.] It’s the most ignorant idea that ever—why, Jim, they’re the noblest human beings that’s ever been in the world… And brave? Why, they ain’t afraid of anything… Death? an Injun don’t care shucks for death. They prefer it. They sing when they’re dying—sing their death song. You take an Injun and stick him full of arrows and splinters and hack him up with a hatchet, and skin him, and start a slow fire under him, and do you reckon he minds it? No, sir; he will just set there in the hot ashes, perfectly comfortable, and sing, same as if he was on salary… They’re awful strong, and fiery, and eloquent, and wear beautiful blankets, and war paint, and moccasins, and buckskin clothes, all over beads, and go fighting and scalping every day in the year but Sundays, and have a noble good time, and they love friendly white men, and just dote on them, and can’t do too …
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